Two of the top 10 pitchers over the past two seasons in fWAR are free agents this year. The main target will be Gerrit Cole, who ranks third in the majors with a 13.4 fWAR. Most people would guess Stephen Strasburg, who can opt out of his deal, as the other but they would be wrong. The second is Zack Wheeler, who has an 8.9 mark over the past two seasons, which ranks ninth, just ahead of Aaron Nola. Strasburg is 15th, with an 8.1 mark. He was better than Wheeler in 2019 but did not have nearly as strong of a season in 2018.
Of course, GMs are not going to value players simply by fWAR and hand out contracts accordingly. Instead, this is used to show that anyone who thinks Wheeler is going to be available cheap should probably re-think their position.
So, how much will Wheeler get in free agency? This isn’t so easy to answer. It’s always a supply and demand issue and there might be multiple pitchers available who would be appealing to a club with championship aspirations. In addition to those mentioned above, there’s Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jake Odorizzi, Jose Quintana and Madison Bumgarner. And check this mlb.com list for the others.
On top of that, there’s the issue of the Qualifying Offer. It’s a pretty good bet that the Mets will extend the QO to Wheeler, which might make clubs shy away from him. Just last year, it wasn’t until after the MLB Draft, when the QO was no longer in play, that former CY winner Dallas Keuchel was able to sign a deal. If you’re a club debating between Wheeler and Ryu – who’s not eligible to receive a QO since he signed the one the Dodgers extended last year – the absence of the QO could make the injury-prone Ryu the better option.
The QO is the average salary of the league’s 125 highest-paid players. Last year it was $17.9 million and it should be in that ballpark again. If the Mets extend the offer to Wheeler, they would receive a compensation pick in the 75-80 range. This is different from two years ago, when the compensation was a pick after the first round. There are exceptions to this new rule (if the team losing the free agent paid luxury tax or was a revenue sharing recipient) but neither apply to the Mets.
In the past, it was an almost automatic decision for clubs to offer their free agents the QO, as almost every player rejected it looking for a long-term deal. But in the past few years, more players have accepted it, fearing that they would, like Keuchel, be left holding the bag. The Mets have to decide if a pick around 80 is worth the risk that Wheeler accepts the QO and they have $18 or so million added to their already tight payroll. Wheeler has to decide if it’s worth the risk to turn down a guaranteed $18 million when he could be forced to sit out half the year and end up taking fewer dollars.
These are not equal risks.
FanGraphs shows Wheeler’s 2019 season being worth $37.6 million on the free agent market. Again, this is not a perfect or infallible number. But it’s a strong indication that if the Mets want to duplicate Wheeler’s production by picking up a free agent, it’s not like they can snap their fingers and come up with a guy for $18 million. Sure, maybe they can sign an older guy like Cole Hamels and he can defy Mother Nature and put up a similar type of year. But there’s no guarantee that the California native would consider signing with the Mets. And there’s always the risk that at age 36 he turns into a pumpkin. If you’re willing to spend $18 million, you might as well spend it on the 30 year old who’s already pitched successfully in New York.
When Keuchel turned down the QO last year, he cost himself $5 million dollars. And while he’ll enter free agency this year without any compensation pick attached, he’ll also be 32 and coming off a 0.8 fWAR season. Part of that is due to pitching fewer innings. But part of that is compiling a FIP over a run higher in 2019. Maybe he gets the long-term contract he was unable to land last year. But the average annual value of that long-term deal is unlikely to exceed the QO. If he had accepted the QO, pitched a full season and put up production like he did in 2018, he’d be in a much better position to land that type of lucrative long-term deal this time around.
Perhaps Wheeler will think of himself and his free agent chances as more akin to Patrick Corbin than to Keuchel. Like Wheeler, Corbin shook off some injury problems to put up back-to-back strong years, posting a 3.0 fWAR in 2017 and a 5.9 mark in 2018 before hitting free agency. Last offseason, Corbin landed a 6/$140 deal, despite having draft pick compensation. But there were two differences between Corbin then and Wheeler now. First, Corbin was considered the best pitcher available in free agency. Wheeler might be number two (or he might not) but the clear number one is Cole. And second is that Corbin is a lefty and high-end lefties will command a premium since there are fewer of them around.
Wheeler will have to decide if he can make more next year without the QO attached than he would this season. Let’s say that he rejects the QO and signs a 4/$75 deal, one that gives him both fewer years and considerably fewer average dollars than what Corbin got a season ago. Would he be better off taking $18 million this year and then signing a long-term deal the following season? Another year in the same ballpark as 2018-19 for Wheeler would seem to make it easier for him to land a 3/$60 or better deal as a free agent in the 2020-21 offseason.
But nothing is ever guaranteed for pitchers, who can get injured at any time. Wheeler could accept the QO and then get hurt and see his value drop through the floor. And you have to consider that because of his previous injury problems, Wheeler has not made the money that some other guys have made in their MLB career. According to Baseball-Reference, Corbin made over $30 million before becoming a free agent last year. Ryu made around $36 million when he accepted the QO last season. Wheeler has made just under $10.3 million. Maybe he made great investments and has lived a frugal lifestyle and it doesn’t matter. Or maybe he made too many vanity purchases and could really use cash right now.
My guess is that the most likely scenario is that the Mets offer the QO and Wheeler rejects it. But it’s not a certainty that the Mets will extend it. Perhaps the potential salary drain of $18 million isn’t worth a third-round pick from their point of view. And it’s not a given that Wheeler would reject the QO, either.
We’ll find out about both parties’ tolerance for risk in this decision. The Mets have to make their choice first, with the QO decision due five days after the end of the World Series. If the Mets do extend the offer, then Wheeler has 10 days to accept or decline it. One advantage that Wheeler has is that he can negotiate with other teams in this 10-day window. He’ll have the opportunity to see what the market looks like for his services. Of course, not all teams are going to give you their best offer in this time frame. And just because a team signals it would be willing to give a suitable long-term deal doesn’t mean that it actually will when push comes to shove.